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Sierra magazine
Comfort Zone | Smart Designs for Pleasure and Planet

An Able Green Design

By Anneli Rufus


Clockwise from above: Access to transit helps the low-income and disabled tenants of the Gish Family Apartments stay connected to the larger community; Wendy Wunsch enjoys a second-floor terrace; features for the disabled are plentiful at the 35-unit complex; drought-tolerant landscaping slashes water use.

What I Like
"I even like my mailbox," Wunsch says. "It's nice and low, so I just put my key in and handily get my mail right out."

Lesson Learned
"To improve efficiency, Gish was built at the same time as another project, saving 2 to 3 percent," says Jeff Oberdorfer, executive director of developer First Community Housing. "That equals the cost of LEED gold."

Blind from birth, Wendy Wunsch was already living with cerebral palsy when a savage attack left her partially paralyzed 17 years ago. But those hurdles can't stop her: "My brain is very much alive," Wunsch says. "I still get together with neighbors." Which is easy now that she's renting one of 13 units designed and reserved for disabled tenants in San Jose, California's innovative and green 35-unit Gish Family Apartments. Some of her neighbors are autistic, others have Down syndrome, and many, like Wunsch, use a wheelchair.

"I love the braille signs," Wunsch says, "and that there's a community bathroom in the hallway. It's as if they thought of everything." Among other features, the disabled tenants' units have hardwired smoke detectors--no battery-changing required--and peepholes at various levels.

Wunsch also appreciates that the building is environmentally responsible. "We save water, and the paints don't have odors that might make me sick," she says.

Completed in 2007 on an urban-brownfield site formerly occupied by a gas station, the four-story Gish earned LEED gold ratings in both the Homes and New Construction categories.

With a budget of around $15 million, a team headed by San Jose architect Jerome King created an asymmetrical, scallop-sided marvel that evokes the beach, with sand-hued outer walls and glimmery-blue 30-kilowatt photovoltaic panels that provide 30 percent of the common areas' electricity--and keep nearly 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air each year.

Inside, it looks like your standard urban apartment complex, painted in whites and bridle-path browns. The carpets hint at its eco-cred, though, with recycled-content and earth-toned tiles that can be easily removed if stained.

Top-to-bottom ecofriendly construction materials garnered the building a Top Ten Green Award from the American Institute of Architects: non-PVC, solar-reflective, thermoplastic-membrane roofing; double-glazed windows; natural linoleum flooring; and recycled-content metal siding. The Gish, outfitted with low- and ultralow-flow fixtures, uses 62 percent less potable water than a comparable conventional building; its drought-tolerant landscaping is irrigated via a system that monitors the weather online and adjusts itself accordingly.

Wunsch is heading out, so we ride the elevator together. The Gish's proximity to major bus and trolley stops would be a huge plus for any eco-conscious tenant, but it's a necessity for residents like Wunsch. All tenants receive a free public transit pass. "Not only do I get free rides, which is great," Wunsch says, "but I get to help the environment as well."


ON THE WEB What's your idea of a green living or work space? Tell us at sierraclub.org/sierra/shelter.

Photos by Paul Dyer

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